Ghostwritten – Java and Cornwall – Isabel Wolff

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A chilling and extremely moving account of what could have and probably did happen in Java during WW2 . Have a box of tissues to hand. The writing as well as the events described will move you to tears.

Story in a nutshell

Jenni is a ‘ghost’: she writes the lives of other people. It’s a job that suits her well: still haunted by a childhood tragedy, she finds it easier to take refuge in the memories of others rather than dwell on her own.

Now she has an exciting new commission – she is to write the memoirs of a Dutchwoman, Klara.  Klara was a child in WW2 and was interned in a camp on Java during the Japanese occupation.

Jenni and Klara begin to work together and as they do so Jenni begins to examine her own memories of her own past. Will the ghostwriter be able to put her own ghosts of the past to rest too?

Place and setting

From Cornwal, via the Death Railway to the island of Java and the many sites of the internment camps and jungles
From Cornwall, via the Death Railway to the island of Java and the many sites of the internment camps and jungles. The author mentions on her website that  one of her parent’s friends had been a POW on the Thai-Burma Railway – Death Railway and the inspiration for the novel had come from this and her childhood memories of the TV show Tenko amongst other things

The novel has a remarkable  sense of place, since the place is as much a character here as anything else. From the peace and calm of Polvarth in Cornwall – based on Rosevine –  and transports you right to the heart of the tropical heat of Java. The blistering heat, ‘mountains swathed in jungle’ and the dangers….

Java landscape - Photo courtesy of Isabel Wolff
Java landscape – Photo courtesy of Isabel Wolff

Klara remembers how her mother first described it to her, to try and make her feel at home –

My mother told me, before we left Holland, that we were going to live in a faraway land that was warm and colourful – ‘an earthly paradise’.

There is a lot of history and harrowing facts woven into this story too. Not to mention the smallest detail with a huge impact –

Jasmine and my mother were always cleaning because in the tropics, mould and mildew would take hold very quickly….Every week we had to disinfect the floor or the insects would move in”

However there are moments of childhood wonder – which gives a wider picture of the amazing life on the island before the trouble started –

My earliest memory is of the little Tjik tjaks, dainty beige lizards that used to run along our living room walls.They were caled Tjik-tjaks because that’s the noise they made.

Very different to the story set in  Cornwall but all the more fascinating perhaps because of it. Cornwall is beautifully evoked however – whilst Polvarth is based on Rosevine,  Trennick is based on Portscatho. Nailsford in the Cotswolds is fictional as is the Church of St Jude’s.

Cornwall  - where Jennie meets Klara and the story begins....Photo courtesy of Isabel Wolff
Cornwall – where Jennie meets Klara and the story begins….Photo courtesy of Isabel Wolff

Booktrail recommended!

Isabel Wolff will make you cry-in a good way I hasten to add but this is a very poignant and moving account of life in a Java internment camp and it doesn’t make for very easy reading sometimes. There are real moral dilemmas, heartbreaking decisions and two remarkable women telling their stories.

The dual time line is ideal for the telling of this story – two parallel stories of a two women who have suffered hurt and loss. The ghostwriter certainly had a tough job and this book gave me new respect for what these writers actually do.

The relationship between Jenni the writer and Klara who is elderly and has decided to share secrets that she has only decided to share now. I could only imagine how this must have been a strange and moving experience for both women in different ways. Having said that the difficulties Jenni had when travelling to Cornwall and facing up to her own issues is also well explored.

However it is Klara’s story that is of course the main focus and for me the most harrowing and hard to read story that evoked so many emotions – very realistic and very hard to accept that it happened. There is so much emotion wrapped up in these scenes that you feel as if you are imposing on someone’s grief – but Klara is telling you the story that she wants to tell, has to tell and I for one felt privileged that she had seemingly chosen me to tell it.

The relationship between the two women and the end of the story – well I won’t spoil anything but this definitely had an effect which lingered.

Reykjavik Nights – Iceland – Arnaldur Indridason

bookThink you know Inspector Erlendur well? This book takes you back to his early days in the traffic department and how he became the man we know today.

Story in a nutshell 

Inspector Erlendur Sveinnson, a veteran detective with the Reykjavik police was left in rather  precarious circumstances, so this book returns to the young man in 1974 when he was still ‘ on nights’ as a patrol officer in the traffic department.

The old Erlendur of today however was the ever inquisitive man back then too for when a homeless man dies in a small pool of water, he, unlike others on his team, doesn’t put this down to too much alcohol or ‘ just one of those things’. He thinks more is at stake so he investigates further. What he finds and how he finds it takes him in new directions.

An interesting look back at the Erlendur we think we know. Turns out his early experiences have really given us a  wider picture with many more layers than we have now.

Place and setting

Hvassaleit /Miklabruat/Kringlumyri - where the three boys live who find the dead man. Kringlumyri where the man is found Hlidar - Erlendur’s own suburb where he grew up hverfisgata - where the police station is bustadir - where Erlendur is called to a disturbance SKulgata - the seafront near the police station and the flat topped mass of Mount Esja where Erlendur likes to walk and think Tjornin - the little lake in the centre of town where Erlendur likes to think Nauthólsvík. - where there is a geothermal beach
Hvassaleit /Miklabruat/Kringlumyri – where the three boys live who find the dead man. Kringlumyri where the man is found
Hlidar – Erlendur’s own suburb where he grew up
hverfisgata – where the police station is

Skulagata – the seafront near the police station and the flat topped mass of Mount Esja where Erlendur likes to walk and think
Tjornin – the little lake in the centre of town where Erlendur likes to think

The book is a slow start plot wise but there’s a good reason for this as we learn a lot about the Reykjavik of the 1970s. this is not the side of the city that you will have seen before and much of what you read here is like literally stepping back into a city that at that time was increasing commercialism, technology and foreign travel.

Location is evoked to show how Erlendur spends his time and the fact he is as such a loner here as in later books –

“Erlender walked over to Kringlumýri . It was not the first time his feet had led him in that direction. With little to occupy him outside work, he too k pleasure n wandering the street on fine summer evenings, round Tjörnin, the small lake in the centre of town; through the west end and out to the Seltjarnarnes peninsula, or south along the shores of Skerjafjordur  to the cove at Nauthólsvík.”

A trail in the making if we say so ourselves. Might not want to join the Icelandic touring club as he does but trekking to the hot springs at Landmannalaugar sounds better to us than it did to him.

Good to see more of where Erlendur grew up and about his early school days too. His wishful thinking when looking at his own school paints a picture of a man with regrets and with a need to make his own way in life.

The Arctic Patrol Mystery – Iceland adventure – The Hardy Boys

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The Hardy boys travel to Reykjavik and have an adventure they’ll never forget! A childhood favourite here!

Story in a nutshell

A children’s classic and a real trip to Iceland if you care to reminisce with the finest bunch of teenagers we can remember. Not read the Hardy Boy adventures? Then try this one to Iceland and you’ll want to be in the Hardy boys club for sure.

An Icelandic sailor has gone missing and no where seems to know where he could be – least of all his insurance company. So The Hardy Boys – a bunch of fearless teenage detectives  – are asked to help find him and find out what happened to him. But from the very moment that they arrive in Reykjavik,  they are in constant danger. Frank and Joe uncover a shocking and wide reaching espionage plot that threatens the life of a U.S. astronaut and NASA’S moon project.

Place and setting

Akureyi - where the hardy boys are flying to when the plane goes down Reykjavik - the capital city and setting for the main mystery Snaefell glacier  - where they get stuck Snaefellssjokull - glacier area keflavik - where the small boat is returning to from the fishing trip
Akureyi – where the hardy boys are flying to when the plane goes down
Reykjavik – the capital city and setting for the main mystery
Snaefell glacier – where they get stuck
Snaefellssjokull – glacier area
keflavik – where the small boat is returning to from the fishing trip

The chills of Iceland and the vast snowy landscape are there from the first page and fans of the Hardy boys remember the spirit of the other books which is more than present here.

From their home in Bayport USA, they fly to Akureyi in Northern Iceland but discover that the pilot is an enemy before they even arrive in Reykjavik! When a helicopter comes to rescue the pilot from the glaciers and not them, it is sometime before they are able to get help and so escape from the snowy landscape.

As Joe himself remarks – “Iceland is not a bad place for a detective case”

Later having returned to Reykjavik they search for the missing sailor at sea – the scenes in the sea are just what you would expect fro the hardy boys series :

“Then suddenly it happened. A huge wave bore down on them. It hit the raft when it was in a deep trough, and after it had passed over the clinging occupants, Frank Hardy was gone!”

This is the land for snowy and dangerous adventure all what the hardy boys are about. The usual is here such as the chases, the tying people up and getting people out of scrapes, but the snowy setting really ramped up the tension since you see how dangerous those glaciers can be.

A fun way to get into the setting of Iceland and go back to your childhood for a great adventure and a blast from the past. Books meant for children should never be over estimated in your search for a cracking adventure or to learn about a place and country. A lot of Iceland in this book for your money! And you can’t beat the Hardy Boys can you?

My Soul to Take – Iceland – Yrsa Sigurdardottir

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Prepare to be spooked and chilled in Iceland’s chilly landscape…..

Story in a nutshell

A mystery in the chilly, snowy and icy landscape of mystery, murder, hauntings and a lot of buried consequences..

1940s. Rural Iceland – Someone cruelly murders a young innocent girl.

Present day – a hotel has been built near where the girl was killed (although at this stage no one knows about her. The owner of the resort hotel is not happy and says the place is haunted amongst other faults. Thora Gudmundsdottir, lawyer and mother is asked to look into the matter and so she does.

There is an awful lot more guests at this hotel than it would first appear…

This story is awash in possible motives, history, family gothic, etc. It is well constructed, with perfect pacing. If you love a good mystery, you will love this one.

Place and setting

The hotel and spa - this hotel might be nice to experience the landscape of the novel /the mountain Kirkjufell - it stood alone in the sea/the Hvalfjörður tunnel - part of the journey you would travel to to snaefellsnes/ Reykjavik and the Fossvogur cemetery
The hotel and spa – this hotel might be nice to experience the landscape of the novel /the mountain Kirkjufell – it stood alone in the sea/the Hvalfjörður tunnel – part of the journey you would travel to to snaefellsnes from the capital/
Reykjavik and the Fossvogur /Gufunes cemetery

Snaefellsnes on Iceland’s west coast provides the ideal landscape for a story built on superstition local folklore as well as snowy and chilly soil. the book itself is called  The story of Iceland due to the level of atmosphere and evocative aspects to the writing   – around the culture and the history of the island as well as the people and the landscape of course.

The Snæfellsnes  is also known as Iceland in Miniature, because many national sights of Iceland that are popular and well known are actually located here including the Snæfellsjökull volcano. You can see it quite clearly fro the capital city Reykjavik on a good day and another exciting fact – its the setting of the novel Journey to the Centre of The Earth by Jules Verne!

Well, if you of a nervous disposition you may want to skip certain parts when reading this as, well, the sound of babies crying in the fog for example is not something you forget easily.

The supernatural theme in this book is quite fascinating though so I persevered as there’s something about a building on the old grounds of an area which has a strange and spooky history.

The air of strange and gruesome goings on starts when you realise just how the victim has been found murdered. Even before I got to that point though – the very first chapter seen through the eyes of a small frightened child was perhaps one of the most chilling for what it leads to.

I’m amazed I was able to continue reading  – as vivid as my imagination is – but I had to know what happened to her!

The book is interesting on so many levels – the Icelandic setting is only one of them – but the culture and heritage as well as the mythology alluded to is quite interesting and there were many things I felt I discovered from the book. The role of Nazism in Iceland during the war was one.

Bbrrrrr Iceland is very chilly indeed!

The Mother Shadow – Hollywood – Melodie Johnson Howe

mother shadow

A female detective and her female butler solve mysteries in Hollywood

Story in a nutshell 

Maggie Hill    thirty-five with a short-lived writing career and a broken marriage. You might say that things aren’t going too well but she’s keen to stay in California so she finds temporary work.

Her latest employer, the wealthy Ellis Kenilworth, has just asked her to type up his will that states that everything including his rare coin collection is to go to someone named Claire Conrad. Then Kenilworth shoots himself in the head.

Maggie now has to find this Claire and to see the will is carried out. But it’s not going to be such an easy thing to do. She and Claire have to protect the man’s dying wish but the hyenas are circling….

Place and setting

First published in the 1980s, this book contains some lovely items such as mentions of pantyhose and shoulder pads but it merely goes to reinforce the old glamour of LA such as depicted in the tv shows of the same era – Dynasty comes to mind?

There is a contrast in LA  – rich and poor, LA and Pasadena, Maggie Hill, and Claire Conrad – the first seems to be the queen of the temps whilst Claire Conrad is more alert and organised – but when these two misfits at first come together to try and solve the mystery of the Kenilworth case, there is a lot of Hollywood and Californian banter which results.

Pasadena has a highly polished Calvinistic shine that will never tarnish

Pasadena  - where Kenilworth’s mansion is San Fernando valley  - where Maggie says She had not come to LA to live here the Ventura freeway - where she drives each day Los Angeles
Pasadena – where Kenilworth’s mansion is
San Fernando valley – where Maggie says She had not come to LA to live here
the Ventura freeway – where she drives each day
Los Angeles

Claire Conrad is quite a unique character and it made for a refreshing change to have someone like her in a book about mystery and detection.  Her working with Maggie  Hill is  a strange dynamic and at first you might think that it won’t work but it does and its compelling to read. I want to meet this Claire, I think she and I would get along great.

The complicated web of deceit and mystery is good too as it’s a mix of two mysteries circling at once. The second only really happens when people are trying to mask the first. Oh what a tangled web we weave.

There are some humorous and witty moments dotted throughout too – is this the Hollywood irony of the author creeping through? Whatever it is, it worked for me and there were gems of joy amidst the detection work –

Being a detective is a little like being a magician. When you’re doing something devious with your left hand, make sure the audience is looking at your right hand.

The Hollywood landscape, a detective story, two mysteries and a large dose of wit make this a unique read.

The Haiku Murder -Tokyo, Japan – Fran Pickering

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Following on from the Cherry Blossom Murder, Josie Clark is once again getting herself in involved in even more tricky situations

Story in a nutshell

Josie Clark is a British expat in Tokyo  who goes on a Haiku Country tour with people from a company called Ando investments. It’s to be a getting to know you trip away for new clients and they’ll be visiting places well known for Haiku fans as well as being the ideal getaway. Writing poetry is on the agenda for every evening and the trip looks set to be relaxing as well as enjoyable.

But when the party arrive at Matasuyama castle, one of the participants of the trip, a charismatic financier is found dead at the bottom of a castle. A tragic fall! they cry, but Josie has other ideas and believes he was pushed.

Place and setting

Follow Josie around Japan on a Haiku Murder Mystery tour
Follow Josie around Japan on a Haiku Murder Mystery tour

Tokyo – where the trip departs from

Ishite temple/Dogo hot spring – first stop on the tour

Matsuyama castle – where Mr Ando falls to his death  – or does he?

Saitama – where the Ando family runs a bookshop

Yokohama – the best and  biggest Chinatown in Japan where Josie eats with Dave

We’re sure that poetry is not normally as deadly as that portrayed in the book but it was very interesting to find out about the Haiku trip and to go on the itinerary with them. It was like a poetry booktrail so was right up our street and getting to know the array of characters was interesting too. The scenes at the airport befor they even depart set the scene well with descriptions of quirky characters with hidden agendas.

As the tour progresses, we find out more about Haiku – such as lovers would converse in haiku and

Jimbocho and Saitama seem to be the places where the bookshops are in the bookand how we wanted to linger here for longer. Makes us want to learn Japanese now too.

Japanese culture seems so fascinating in Fran Pickering’s hands – the funeral traditions for one were interesting to read about as was the yuzu icrecream and the yuzu flavoured sweet bean paste that was the Matsuyama speciality.

The gesture of standing on a bridge and dropping a camellia in to the water on one side and then making a haiku before it appeared on the other side seemed like a lovely thing to do and this is one image that stayed with us.

Matsuyama Castle
Matsuyama Castle

Review

Fran Pickering’s passion for Japan really is the way in which she is able to write about the country with such skill. Her writing is easy to read and flows well and the snippets of Japanese life fit well into the case Josie gets herself involved with. I had images of a Japanese style of Nancy Drew kind of girl as Josie got herself further and further into the case despite David’s protestations. She’s a curious girl -I like that- and I urged her not to listen to the boyfriend and to get solving the case.

Some would call this cosy crime – like Grantchester or Nancy Drew but do we always have to have horrifc graphic murder everytime? It makes a nice change for the setting and the investigation side to come out on top and to  focus on the person solving the mystery. There’s lots of conversations and inner thoughts that Josie shares throughout which make it easy for us to get on side early on and I was willing her to get the criminal. To do so in a landscape that is so tricky to navigate, one where we learn about the culture along the way is really interesting.

I like Josie Clark, I really do. Poor girl gets herself into a lot of scrapes but she uses her love of Japan and the Japanese language to full effect.

Josie if you would ever like to come on a booktrail, we’d love to have you! Safer than Haiku tours we assure you!

Strange Girls and Ordinary Women – Madeira – Morgan McCarthy

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Madeira. Three very different women who at first seem to have no apparent links to one another find their lives intertwined in very strange ways

Story in a nutshell

An enjoyable book featuring 3 interesting but very different women – Alice,Vic,and Kaya 

One is a doctor’s wife, one a hotel manager in Madeira  and the other dreaming of life away from her family and to a better place.

From London to Madeira we follow their lives and the, at first, invisible threads that keep them linked together. The blurb of the book says We all see what we want to see’ and this is the intriguing tag line that draws you right in.

Female intuition, the other woman, loyalty and the will to survive

Place and setting

Portugal and the island of Madeira
Portugal and the island of Madeira

Vic lives in Madeira and thinks of her return to England and tries to remember what it is like – 

Vic can’t summon many clear memories of England…

…she thinks of rain and cucumber sandwiches…..

Meanwhile, Madeira is

The cooled glamour of the grand era of hotels of the time when Madeira was the jewel of the crown of the colonial classes

Perhaps the saddest place we visit here is The Purple Tiger, the town’s only strip club

As well as Madeira, we also get a glimpse of London and Paris we also get a snapshot of a brief visit to Paris too and the graves of Sartre and De Beauvoir

But the real journey is the space between these three very different women

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Devon to Berwick – Rachel Joyce

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This book with its ready made map in the beginning is just crying out for a booktrail! It is a booktrail ready made!

Story in a nutshell 

Harold Fry is convinced that he must deliver a letter to an old love in order to save her, meeting various characters along the way and reminiscing about the events of his past and people he has known, as he tries to find peace and acceptance.

He walks all the way from Devon to Berwick for one reason and soon discovers that the journey throws up many questions and thoughts and that is before he has ever got to his destination!

This is such a sweet and uplifting story but never saccharine sweet or overdone. You will laugh and cry and moan at Harold but you will always will him on and encourage him to get to the next place. Extremely well written and people well observed – a character study and a tale of hope if ever we read one!

The booktrail to beat all booktrails!
The booktrail to beat all booktrails!

Well if this not the ultimate booktrail and tour of the UK by a literary character then we don’t know what is. Harold walks from the south of the country to the North in search of his special friend Queenie Henessey and it takes him through some of the most lovely cities and places in the country.

Follow the map and see the main parts of Harold’s journey – from Devon right up to Berwick on the border with Scotland via Exeter, Bath, Sheffield and the city of York.

Harold Travel Tips

He buys 4 table mats from the gift shop at Bickley Mill – “which offer laminated views of Devon” – http://www.bickleighmill.com/

Tries a Regency bath cream tea in a Bath tearoom and also stops for a rest in Bagley Green, Somerset. 

The reason we loved this book was its simplicity and overriding message of hope. As Harold himself says in  a letter to Queenie: “I am on my way. All you have to do is wait. Because I’m going to save you. I will keep walking, and you must keep living.”

This was a charming novel for many reasons – the way in which Harold set off in flimsy shoes to walk all the way to Berwick to do what he thought was right, to see his love and respect for Queenie, to understand the problems in his life and what he thought about them, and to learn of the people he meets along the way – those that tell their own stories or help him to achieve his.

have-you-seen-harold-fry

Along the way Harold thinks a lot about his life and how he has acted with certain situations and with his family. It’s only when he talks to others along the way that he soon realises that other people – those he meets on the way are also struggling with inner turmoil – struggling to put one foot in front of the other both literally and figuratively.

It’s very sad in parts but ultimately this is not a sad read. I cheered for Harold! I smiled as I imagined him and the dog running along side him, I was sad when he injured his feet – I thanked those who gave Harold hope and encouragement. But all the while I wanted to hug him and tell him to carry on as so many people were right behind him.

Harold could be any one of us – a simple normal person with regrets, a threadbare marriage and a dedication to a true friend. I often wondered what Queenie would make of all this – did she realise what was going on?

Happily Rachel has written Queenie’s story which we booktrail next- back to the world of Harold Fry? Yes please

Bones Never Lie – Charlotte, USA – Kathy Reichs

bones-never-lie

Set in Charlotte, North Carolina, USA – This is grisly and macabre – places best seen from the comfort of your armchair!

Story in a nutshell

Dr. Temperance Brennan is called to deal with perhaps one of he most shocking murders of her career – there have been a series of child murders in the USA – and someone from Brennan’s past is thought to be behind them.

Years ago, Anique Pomerleau kidnapped and murdered a string of girls in Canada, before narrowly eluding capture. He seems to have resurfaced in Vermont and North Carolina.Along with her colleague Andrew Ryan, they hope to finally end this reign of terror and get justice for the families.

This is a dangerous case and a battle of wills with evil itself.

Place and setting – Charlotte , North Carolina, USA

The main working places of Bones Never Lie - plus a nice eating place to try!
The main working places of Bones Never Lie – plus a nice eating place to try!

The murder of children is particularly difficult and harrowing to read about so only the places of work have been mentioned for an indication of where the action of the police investigation takes place. Having said that there is one place  –  a few hours drive from the city of Charlotte which is only breifly mentioned as being near a murder site but is a fab place to go and visit for real. 

Pee Dee national wildlife refuge – a body is found near here but in real life this is a stunning place to visit! See for yourself – http://www.fws.gov/peedee/

There is one more cheerful location we picked out and that was the Penguin Drive through diner. Mentioned by Brennan herself, we see this as a way of eating like a police investigator and seeing a side to the city that the locals do. A nice break from reading about the more gruesome locations in the book and also eating like the characters – http://penguincharlotte.com/ 

The Penguin drive in   A clogged artery waiting to take you out…..a Charlotte institution even before I was born.

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First thing that I must say here is that you don’t really have to have read the earlier books which mentions the past interaction between Tempe and Anique Pomerleau. It helps as it adds an extra sense of doom and fear but this history and tempe’s experience was all neatly woven in to this book.

Tempe and Andrew Ryan  – now there’s an interesting relationship. Love reading about these two and their interactions add many a new dimension to the overall plot.

Of course the forensics are the star of the show so to speak and while I normally love this, I did find many parts of this books hard to read since the deaths of children are never easy to think about let alone read about. However this does add a different and more harrowing voice to the novel and the strong forensic notes and the strong writing really does the difficult subject justice.

Kathy Reichs’ descriptions are really gripping and if I didn’t know of her forensic background I would say some bits I thought too far fetched and  – really? But that is the horror of this book – it could be real, Kathy writes about forensics from the inside and that depravity knows no bounds. Fiction really is  as strange as fact sometimes!

Meet the lovely Kathy here – http://kathyreichs.com/

and on twitter – @KathyReichs

Hear her on BBC World Service talking about her first novel Deja Dead – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p027gcnh